Writing about Reading: Considering Perspective Paves the Way for Critical Thinking

vase or two faces

Rubin’s vase is a famous optical illusion that can be interpreted in multiple ways. When looked at one way, it appears to be a vase. When looked at another way, it appears to be two faces peering at each other.  This image was developed by a Danish Psychologist, Edgar Rubin. About this image, Rubin remarked: “When two fields have a common border, and one is seen as figure and the other as ground, the immediate perceptual experience is characterized by a shaping effect which emerges from the common border of the fields and which operates only on one field or operates more strongly on one than on the other (Synsoplevede Figurer, 1915).

The way I interpret Rubin’s quote is that one’s perception of an image is defined not by the image itself, but by the way one interprets the image. If one sees the vase as background, the image will look like two faces. If one sees the faces as background, then the image will look like a vase. So which viewer is correct? Neither, of course.

In this same vein, an event can be interpreted multiple ways, depending on the way in which a person experiencing the event views it. What a bride will experience at her wedding will be very different from the way in which youngster at the children’s table will experience the same wedding. For the bride, the foreground (in other words, what is important), of the event might be her dress, the flowers, the way the decorations came together. It might be the joy she feels at entering into matrimony with her betrothed. For the child, the foreground might be the friends at his table, the delicious cake he gets to enjoy as a special treat. So which experience of the wedding was correct? Neither, of course.

I have long been interested in the topic of perspective and the way in which one’s point of view shapes his or her reality. (Please note that for the purposes of this post, I am using the terms “perspective” and “point of view” interchangeably.) I wrote a Slice of Life Story on this very topic during the March Slice of Life Story Challenge. I believe that teaching kids to think and writing about alternate perspectives can pave the way to a world of deeper interpretation, critical thinking, and eventually, greater tolerance.

A wonderful way to introduce kids into the world of perspective is through their reading. Fiction books are typically written from the point of view of one character, so the way the story goes is shaped by that characters’ experiences, beliefs, and place in the world. However, if the story were told from a different character’s perspective, it would likely go much, much differently. What a rich way to consider how a character’s beliefs and experiences shape the story, and her perspective of the world, by imagining alternate stories that would come from a different character’s telling.

To offer an entry point into this work, there are some lovely texts that tell the same story from multiple points of view. The delightful picture book, Voices in the Park, by Anthony Browne, is perfect. It tells of a jaunt in the park from the point of view of four very different characters. Even Browne’s stunning illustrations reflect the ways in which the four characters bring their experiences and beliefs to their interpretation of the day in the park.

After studying this text and helping kids to notice the ways in which the perspective of the characters shapes the way in which the experience the day in the park (and thus the way the story goes), depending on their reading level, you might channel them to read some longer texts that tell a story from the point of view of multiple characters, such as Paul Fleischman’s fabulous Bull Run, or Sharon Creech’s marvelous The Wanderer.

As kids read, they can think about how the author might have gone about crafting the story from an alternate point of view. As a class, you might brainstorm a list of steps an author might take when crafting a story based on the perspective of a character.

This list might look like:

  1. Decide who will be telling the story (or from whose point of view the story will be told).
  2. Think deeply (and write) about the experiences, beliefs, characteristics, and status of that character. You might consider his or her gender, age, race, socioeconomic status, birth order. All of these will have an effect on the way he or she tells the story.
  3. Think deeply (and write) about the way in which all of the above will affect the way in which the story goes. What kinds of events will be in the foreground versus the background for this particular character?
  4. Make an outline or a story map of the part of the story you would like to tell from the alternate character’s point of view. Consider how the story might start, as this will depend on what is important to that particular character.
  5. Write the story, staying true to what you know about that character’s perspective and the way in which he or she would experience the story.

Then, comes the real payoff. When kids read any narrative text, they can notice the characters whose perspectives are hidden. They can think about how the story might go if it were told from the point of view of a different character. Then, they can write parts of the story from this alternate point of view. Finally, they can talk and write about what they are learning about how one’s experiences, beliefs, and place in the world shape the way in which the world is viewed.

Of course, the real goal of all of this is to help students to consider and be sympathetic to alternate points of view in their lives. They can think about how the story of a disagreement with a classmate might go if told from the classmate’s point of view. Or of how the story of a frustrating time with a parent might go from the parent’s point of view. Eventually, students can consider global events from more than one point of view, such as overseas conflicts or debates between politicians. With enough instruction on perspective, we can teach kids to be more thoughtful, tolerant, forgiving human beings.

[Note: Some of this work is based on a reading unit of study I wrote titled From Perspective to Interpretation that was included in the Constructing Curriculum book in Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Calkins & Tolan, 2010).]